Lower Sugar River Regenerative Agriculture District
South-Central Wisconsin USA
Floodplain deciduous forest; bedrock prairie; oak savanna
Private, with many public protected lands, in a dairy agricultural context
The Lower Sugar River Regenerative Agriculture District in south-central Wisconsin encompasses 779 km2 of the Sugar River Watershed and several subwatersheds. The area has a similar land use history to other regions of the Midwestern U.S., characterized by intensive farming with conventional agriculture practices, and has seen drastic declines in soil and water quality as well as biodiversity. Local producers, community members, and conservation groups are increasingly concerned about the declining health of the watershed, and have come together to form the Lower Sugar River Regenerative Agriculture District (LSR-RAD). This partnership aims to raise awareness about regionally important conservation issues and build widespread support for regenerative agriculture practices on local farms. Such practices include: use of cover crops to generate biomass and prevent soil runoff; reduced-till and no-till cultivation; and nutrient management plans. Partners in the initiative envision that by 2050 the LSR-RAD will be net carbon-negative, and the region’s land and waters will be restored to healthy diversity while still maintaining the productive capacity of the landscape. The initiative also aims to substantially improve the health and employment prospects of local citizens, both farmers and non-farmers.
Environmental and Human Health Challenges
The Lower Sugar River Watershed is comprised of the Sugar River and several sub-watersheds. As with the majority of the Sugar River basin, the area is largely rural in nature with 79 percent of the land use consisting of agricultural land. The remaining land in the watershed is a matrix of forests (8%), developed lands (6%), wetlands (5%), shrublands (1%), grasslands (1%), barren lands (0.1%), and water (0.4%). Natural features include oak savanna, floodplain forests, and bedrock bluffs with rare bedrock prairie and old-growth black maple and red oak forest preserves. The estimated human population within the Lower Sugar River Watershed is 685,000.
Challenges facing farmers and residents in the watershed are similar to those from other regions with a long history of industrialized agriculture. For decades, farmers in the Lower Sugar River Valley, as elsewhere, have applied conventional approaches to crop production, which favor fewer crops and require expensive mechanization, seed, fertilizer, and pesticides to produce greater yields. Soil health, water quality, biodiversity, and human health have been largely absent from the balance sheet under this paradigm—and natural resources have steadily declined as a consequence. In the last decade especially, the Sugar River has shown a steady increase in phosphorus, nitrogen, suspended solids, and turbidity levels, as well as larger volumes of runoff. The diversity of plant life in the region, both wild and cultivated, has perilously declined; and non-native, invasive plants have become established in many areas and are outcompeting native species. The populations of desirable pollinator insects have precipitously declined, creating additional expenses for farmers and loss of crop resilience.
Conventional agricultural practices have also created economic and societal challenges. Despite the area’s productivity, most of the food consumed by local residents had been produced outside the region and shipped in, meaning that local consumers oftentimes lacked diverse, accessible sources of healthy food. Bankruptcies have also increased as economic pressures mount and profit margins from conventional farming decline. A significant portion of the existing local farmer population is nearing retirement and do not have relatives interested in taking over the farms. Potential buyers of these farms want to deploy factory farming practices, or Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), to produce dairy products. These investments, if allowed, will produce additional environmental stress while only marginally creating jobs for the local population. Regardless, agricultural and non-agricultural jobs in the region are insufficient to keep young adults from moving away to pursue careers in more promising and more urban locations.
Without significant changes in the entire food system, including land, water, farming practices, finance, marketing, and community engagement, these challenges will only intensify. Moreover, the anticipated impacts of climate change promise to bring additional challenges and stressors for environmental and human health.
Coming Together to Face These Challenges
The Lower Sugar River Regenerative Agriculture District (LSR-RAD) was established to address these challenges in a holistic way. The diverse group of founders includes individuals and organizations active in local conservation, ecosystem restoration, and land protection efforts through such groups as the Lower Sugar River Watershed Association, Wisconsin Farmers Union, Green County Conservation League, The Prairie Enthusiasts, Southern Wisconsin Land Conservancy, Green Rock Audubon Society, Driftless Area Conservancy, and many others. Founders also include several third-generation farmers and families descended from the original land grant settlers from the 1830s. Principal partners leading the effort are: Applied Ecological Services; Reimer Family Farms; Planetary CARE; Iroquois Valley Farm; Taylor Creek Restoration Nurseries; and the Lower Sugar River Watershed Association.
Ecological Health Improvements to Date
The LSR-RAD is working on a number of fronts to improve environmental health and human wellbeing in the watershed. Efforts have focused on raising awareness about the environmental impact of conventional agriculture and the benefits of moving to a regenerative approach, including: use of cover crops after the harvest to generate biomass and prevent soil runoff; reduced-till and no-till cultivation; and nutrient management plans to reduce chemical inputs and runoff. The farmers in this region are very independent folks, resistant to fads and trends. Only a few have thus far fully converted to regenerative agriculture, but a much wider community of local producers has expressed interest in these conservation issues. We aim to bring more on board with time. Project partners are also exploring funding to transfer farms owned by retiring farmers for conversion to regenerative agriculture.
There are now 100,000 acres of the region being farmed with regenerative methods, or about 50% of arable land in the watershed. Over 50 different crops are under cultivation, and more than 800 pollinator trees, plants, and shrubs are being grown. Regenerative dairy operations producing milk, cheese, and other products have now been taken to scale. The area has also seen a resurgence of farm-related secondary industries, from enhanced farm manure management to the manufacture of local biotic fertilizers.
Ecological benefits from these activities are already evident. Water quality in the Sugar River has returned to levels not seen since the 1950s, with abundant fish and other aquatic life. This improvement is due not only to a reduction in runoff from chemical fertilizers and pesticides, but also an influx of runoff from healthy soils, which adds a balanced mix of minerals and biota to water sources. Moreover, regenerative practices have improved water availability as well, by increasing infiltration.
The LSR-RAD was originally founded with a goal of making the watershed net carbon-negative by 2050. Recent studies of soil carbon levels in the area suggest that this milestone has already been met, which would make the Lower Sugar River Watershed the first region in Wisconsin to even become carbon neutral, much less carbon negative.
Community Engagement and Citizen Science
The LSR-RAD is a community-wide effort. As part of the initiative, a watershed-scale citizen science program engages community members to help with water quality sampling and data collection. More than 100 individuals, including local farmers, have been trained as WAVs (Water Action Volunteers). The data they gather is being used to educate farmers about nutrient runoff and ways to improve land management practices, especially through regenerative farming. The data has also been used to produce color-coded maps depicting “high”, “medium”, and “low” watershed health conditions, which can then serve to raise citizen awareness and jumpstart meaningful conversations with land owners, resource managers, and other stakeholders in the watershed. At the same time as they help drive these efforts, citizen science volunteers have an opportunity to “get to know their watershed” and develop an understanding of what a healthy watershed looks like.
Farmer-led studies are also comparing soil microbial community structure, chemical and physical soil properties, and crop nutrition in conventional versus regenerative agricultural fields. Several plots have been established as educational and community agriculture plots, and are available for viewing on the internet by interested citizens from around the world.
Public Education and Awareness Raising
Public outreach efforts are largely centered around raising awareness of the fact that the Lower Sugar River Valley is part of a complex food system and that community wellbeing and quality of life are inextricably linked to a healthy watershed. Most citizens in the LSR-RAD are engaged in some way in selecting, planting, harvesting, transporting, retailing, cooking, and/or sharing the region’s locally produced foods. They are coming to understand the relationship between their food system and the region’s wider overall ecology, and have largely shifted to a diet of locally grown and locally processed foods. By encouraging people to grow more healthy food locally and increasing the percentage of food crops consumed locally, the initiative will have a positive impact on the health of our population.
School children are a key focus of education and outreach efforts. Children begin drawing simple food webs in elementary school and move on in junior high and high school to interactive diagrams that display historic and live data from the local food system. All schools in the region have gardens that supply substantial portions of the food used for school lunches. In an effort to engage children, and the public at large, in following the growth of local crops and monitoring wildlife, water levels, water quality, and air quality, project partners have developed a mobile app that presents data collected through the citizen science program in colorful graphics and animated characters. Children and other citizens can use the app to stay abreast of environmental conditions in the watershed, and can also get involved with the real-world placement and calibration of the sensors that support this rich local data network.
Local conservation partners have also worked with donors to acquire a 150-acre former golf course within the watershed that will serve as a demonstration site for ecosystem restoration and regenerative agriculture. A portion of this site has been set aside for a new 57-acre Watershed Science Center and Field Station called Three Waters Reserve. The Center’s foundational goal is to show the connection between diet, health, and sustainability, and to instill watershed literacy so all citizens are empowered to support healthy watershed functions, sustainable food systems, and a better quality of life.